Stage preview

'Heads' looks at intimate battle for survival in war zone

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The Rep, the professional company of Point Park University, has been exploring the insidious nature of wartime -- the tentacles that reach to the manufacturing of plane parts in "All My Sons" and the return of a haunted warrior to her family in "Soldier's Heart."

With EM Lewis' "Heads," the company goes deep into the Iraqi war zone to reveal two pairs of hostages: a TV journalist and jaded war photographer in one cell, and a woman from a British embassy with a long-timer, an American engineer, in the other. Neither pair knows of the other's existence, and all cope with the constant dread and survival instincts in different ways.

Where: The Rep at the Pittsburgh Playhouse Studio Theatre, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland.
When: Friday through Feb. 16. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays.
Tickets: $24-$27; $15 for tonight’s preview; 412-392-8000 or Pay what you will performance at 2 p.m. Saturday, subject to availability.

Director John Shepard has been on his own journey involving themes of war, starting with being cast in Pittsburgh Public Theater's "Our Town" as Dr. Gibbs, who is described as being an expert on the Civil War. So the director fully immersed himself in research, including the Ken Burns' documentary and whatever books he could devour.

For this project, he has taken inspiration from a singular book, "The Yellow Birds," Iraqi war veteran Kevin Powers' best-selling novel of two young soldiers' battle to stay alive, the struggle to reassimilate and the effects on their families.

"He's been compared to Hemingway," said Mr. Shepard, who obviously agrees with the assessment. "The book is a very intimate account of being in Iraq, and this guy was a machine gunner. You know how it's going to end, and you sort of hold your breath through the entire thing. What's brilliant about the book, it's a very poetic account of war and creates deep ambivalence. From a soldier's perspective, it talks about how messed up these guys are coming home. So it's been a huge influence on me directing this play, trying to bring a lyricism to this kind of piece."

A new twist for Mr. Shepard is the use of video projections. The play calls for a videotape of an interrogation, but the creative team of "Heads" has taken the concept beyond what's on the page, with video designed by Jessi Sedon-Essad in consultation with the director, a psychologist and dramaturg Kyle Bostian.

"You don't want to wave the flag, 'Look what's happening to us!' War affects everyone. It affects the people in the country where the war takes place, it affects soldiers and in this play's case, the journalist and people working in Iraq. What we're trying to do with the video is show some perspective of how the war looks to the other side ... because it is a two-headed coin. It's not just they're bad, we're good."

The play also presented a challenge to scenic designer Britton Mauk and lighting designer Todd Wren and a new experience in directing for Mr. Shepard. He said that his initial thought was to have a turntable that swung around from one cell to the other.

"They are not neighbors; they are in different parts of the building. But because of the logistics of the space and our set, which is brilliantly designed by this young set designer, Britton Mauk, I am playing with this as simultaneous action, so the lights never go all the way down and the audience is privy to what's happening in the other cell. I've never done that before," said Mr. Shepard, who teaches directing at Point Park in addition to acting and directing professionally, including The Rep's acclaimed "August: Osage County" in 2012.

For the cast -- Tony Bingham, Patrick Cannon, James FitzGerald and Diana Ifft -- that means never leaving the stage during a play that often goes to dark places.

Although "Heads" had its first full production in 2007, there's nothing dated about the idea of noncombatants such as a diplomat or a journalist caught up in the violence of a war zone. The play also is about intimacy in a most dire situation, the director said.

"Part of the challenge is to find the lightness that is in the play. There are some light moments, and I have to be sure we capitalize on them. I don't want just this wash of awfulness. It's a psychological study more than anything else."

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